When I first started writing about tech, I though hackathons were the bee’s knees. It was exciting to see groups of strangers put their heads down for a weekend and build something from nothing.
But after attending a few demo presentations and award ceremonies for hackathons, the novelty started wearing off. These days I dread attending hackathons, and I avoid them unless I’m certain there’s going to be someone or something newsworthy to write about.
Perhaps my skepticism has slipped into cynicism, but I’ll let you decide. Here are the five reasons I’m starting to hate hackathons. Please note: the views expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of Tech in Asia.
1. Unfair competition
Hackathons are competitions, so it would make sense that every team be on an even playing field. In truth, many hackathon teams don’t start with a blank slate. I’ve seen people enter hackathons who have already been hacking away for weeks or months. They tack on a few extra team members, add a feature or two, then create a presentation. This is downright unfair to people who come with fresh, untouched ideas.
2. Ultimately a pitching contest
Because teams usually don’t have enough time to complete anything significant in a single weekend, the final pitch often matters more than the product. Forget about the progress made in actually building something, participants just need the power of persuasion to prove to the judges that their idea is best.
In bilingual environments like hackathons in Beijing, this often skews favor in one direction or another due to language barriers. In my experience, teams with demonstrations almost always win out over teams that can only show a slideshow describing their project, disregarding how much headway was actually made at the event. That places too much emphasis on creating a skin-deep shell rather than a functioning product, and gives teams who already have something prepared before the hackathon even starts a huge advantage as per point number one. In hackathons, it’s about what’s on the outside, not the inside, that counts.
3. Often, the wrong people benefit
I’ve got a real bone to pick with corporate and government hackathons. These usually require teams to use a specific API or data-set in their project, to their own benefit. Sure, the winner and runner-up might get some decent prizes, but the sponsors save a metric shitload of money on all those losing teams they didn’t have to pay. Rather than actually take the time to hire a team with good ideas, why not just get a bunch of suckers together and hope they come up with one or two good ideas between the lot of them? Cheap labor! And to top it off, we’ll pretend we’re doing them a favor. These hackathons approach the verge of scam territory.
4. Bad way to get a startup off the ground
If you want to test a new idea that might otherwise take you weeks in just a weekend, fine. I’ll admit hackathons can be useful for that. But the chances of your idea getting picked out of the dozens of people in the room don’t offer good odds, so you’ll probably end up stuck working on someone else’s idea for the next 24 to 72 hours.
Even if a hackathon project goes on to become a startup, seldom does the original team stick together. The startups I’ve seen come out of hackathons essentially have to start from scratch afterward, and most go through many more major pivots before finding the model that best fits. By the time the founders have an MVP they can actually pitch to investors, the hackathon is a relatively insignificant blip in the startup’s history.
5. Always on the weekends
Most people who enter hackathons have day jobs, but hackathons are no vacation. I’m not the first person to point out that hackathons are unhealthy. They promote bad habits like not getting enough sleep, gorging on junk food all day, and being sedentary when you could be outside relaxing. After your long weekend of tirelessly hacking away is finished, participants head straight back to work on Monday. Humans need time to decompress, but hackathons encourage an unsustainable workflow.